A perennially popular belief is that some people have the inexplicable ability to foretell or foresee what is going to happen in the future. Among those who have been claimed to have such an ability are the 16th century occultist Michel de Notredame, and more recent “seers” such as Daniel Logan, Jeane Dixon, and Edgar Cayce. The “accuracy” claimed for such visions of the future is 90%-100%. During late December or early January many newspapers print “predictions of top psychics” for the coming year. Again, high accuracy is claimed for such predictions. It is suggested the reader try the simple experiment of saving such a newspaper and reading it a year later. Such tests have been done many times, and the result is always that only 5%-10% of the predictions bear any resemblance to actual events; the ratio of successful to unsuccessful predictions is far below even the chance level — if one makes random predictions for events which have only two possible outcomes, one should get pretty close to a 50% success rate. “Real” seers do not do even this well.
Why, then, do such so-called seers have any followers? The reason was explained by the late David Hoy, himself a very successful “psychic” who made no secret of his methods. “People desperately want to believe, and they remember only the one time out of a thousand you make a spectacular hit. They never remember the overwhelming number of times you blew it. You don’t have to find excuses for your failures; your followers will either ignore them or invent excuses for you. As for making the predictions to begin with, you just read the newspapers and the newsmagazines and see what kinds of things are happening, and predict that they’ll continue to happen. And once in a while throw in a really bizarre, spectacular wild guess. You have nothing to lose. When you do hit, and you’re bound to hit sooner or later, it’s a real miracle that leaves even the skeptics gasping.”
The classic case is that of Michel de Notredame, or Nostradamus. His writings consist of nearly 1,000 four-line rhyming stanzas, full of grammatical and printer’s errors and untranslatably obscure phrases. No actual names or dates are used. Important figures are called “The Great Man,” “the young Hero,” “the false Antichrist,” etc. Competing groups are “the yellows,” the blues,” “the greens,” etc. No actual places are referred to, except in rare cases. Situations described are universal: revolutions against tyrants, famines, plagues, assassinations, murders, wars, invasions, conquests, and martyrdoms. In this classic, “ambiguous” school of prophecy, it is the reader himself who is the prophet, because he is forced to interpret the meaningless stanzas according to his own experience. L. Sprague de Camp made a study of dozens of translators of Nostradamus. He found that each “translator” rewrote certain passages so that they referred fairly unambiguously to actual past events. Other stanzas were rather arbitrarily taken to refer to future events, and were re-written correspondingly. The result, as one might expect, was that in each case stanzas taken to refer to events that had already taken place were “100% accurate,” but stanzas taken to refer to events that had not yet happened were (in retrospect) 100% wrong! There are several “new” translations of Nostradamus by cranks and cultists every decade or so, and the pattern remains true. If the “translation” was carried out in 1986, one finds that every event described up to, say, 1985, is “just right,” whereas everything thereafter is hopeless nonsense. Hence the need for a new book every decade or so; ironically, the cult of Nostradamus depends not at all on his original writings, but entirely on the most recent “interpretation.” If Nostradamus had never existed and all his prophecies were modern forgeries, the situation would be the same. This actually happened with the 16th century wise woman Mother Shipton; she left no written prophecies, so later commentators were able to make them up completely, with perfect freedom. The most famous lines attributed to her were composed by Charles Hindley in 1862 as a deliberate hoax, to which he later confessed.
Modern “seers” can use approximately the same technique by rewriting their own prophecies in retrospect so that they agree better with what actually happened. Psychics and seers are forced these days to make most of their predictions about the fortunes of celebrities. This is hard on the psychics since nothing is more unpredictable than whether or not a given movie actor or actress will get married or divorced in the next week, much less the next year. A classic case is that for 1968 every famous “psychic” predicted that Jacqueline Kennedy would not remarry in that year. She remarried on October 20, 1968. Jeane Dixon, for example, simply withdrew her syndicated astrology column for that date — in which she had unfortunately written, “I still stand on my New Year’s predictions and see no marriage for Jackie in the near future” — and replaced it with a new one that was “corrected” suitably. Reading a book by one of these people copyright 1970, one will be amazed at how every event mentioned between, say, 1950 and 1970 was gotten just right, but how every real “future” prediction in the book is totally nonsensical.
The reader can judge for himself. Here are some widely publicized predictions of Edgar Cayce (1877-1945). Earth’s polar axis will begin to tip catastrophically in 1936. 1958 will be the most critical year of the 20th century and perhaps of all time. Communist China will be Christian and democratic by the year 1968. During 1960-70 the whole west coast of the U.S. will be broken apart; Japan will sink almost entirely into the sea, and the upper portion of Europe will be grossly altered. Here are some equally widely publicized predictions of Jeane Dixon (1904- ). Red China will go to war with the U.S. in 1958, beginning World War III, which will devastate every continent on earth. Richard Nixon will be elected president by a landslide in 1960. The Vietnam War will end within 90 days from May 7, 1966. Fidel Castro will be dead by the summer of 1966. The Russians will be the first to land on the moon. For 1979, 100 of the “Nation’s Top Psychics” made predictions for the National Enquirer. More than 80% of these top-ranked seers foresaw that 1979 would bring “a major breakthrough in cancer which will almost totally wipe out the disease,” and “contact with aliens from outer space who will give us incredible new knowledge.” None of these great seers had any inkling of such events of 1979 as the seizure of the American Embassy in Iran, the Chicago plane crash that killed 275 people, the Three Mile Island incident, etc.
Modern physics sheds much light on the possibility of prophecy. The structure of the physical laws that correctly describe fundamental processes of nature — processes at the sub-atomic level — is such as to rule out the existence of specific information about future events; if such information existed, the laws would have a totally different form than they do and would also not agree with experiment. Quantum phenomena involve chance at the most fundamental level; the precise outcome of a given process cannot be known until it happens. All that the laws of nature permit us to predetermine is the probability of each possible outcome. Of course, one such probability may in some cases be unity, in which case one can calculate the future position of an object with very great accuracy — as is the case with astronomical phenomena, such as eclipses. But in general, accurate knowledge of the future is completely ruled out by the structure of the physical laws that describe our universe.
Elementary logic also tells us that there are other difficulties with the concept of accurate knowledge of future events. If a prediction of the future could be made detailed and accurate enough, it would automatically invalidate itself by its influence on the future it is supposed to foresee. For instance, if I know in advance that something specific is supposed to happen at a very specific spot accessible to me at a very specific time, I can easily take steps to insure that such an event could not possibly take place, by removing the conditions that make it possible. Again, being aware of a prediction, I could force it to “come true,” when otherwise it would not have happened. In other words, the causal link is from prophecy to event, not the other way around. In general, the existence of a known prediction influences the future it is supposed to “fix” in ways that are themselves inherently unpredictable, and thus actually increases rather than decreases the uncertainty and unpredictability of future events. This is the paradox of prophecy.
Whenever you hear that someone claims to have made a “successful” prediction of any event of everyday life, you might profitably ask some of the following questions:
- Is there any evidence the prediction was made before the event? Or has a very vague and ambiguous prophecy suddenly been “reinterpreted” to refer very unmistakably to an otherwise unforeseen event?
- What is the probability of the predicted event occurring? If it was 100% certain — plane crashes and earthquakes somewhere in the world, death of some show-business celebrity by drug overdose, assassination attempt against some public official somewhere — the “prophet” is playing with the net down!
- What is the predictor’s rate of error for all predictions he has made? About 50% is not too impressive if all predictions are for events with only two possible outcomes! Don’t let the “prophet” keep his own score. If “prophecy” were possible and a valid procedure was carried out to obtain the prophecy, there is no excuse for less than 100% accuracy.
- What is the physical connection between prediction and event? Remember that causality runs only one way. A prediction must by definition occur before the event it predicts, and thus is always a potential cause of or influence upon the event. Self-fulfilling prophecies are not too mysterious. (Nor are they uncommon.)
- How does the prophet earn his living? Does it not seem strange that someone who can accurately foresee future events and can demonstrate this ability reliably is not making a fortune in the stock market or at horse races? The usual answer is that the “mystic power” cannot be used for selfish ends. If this is so, why is the prophet then not working full time for the United Nations, or the Weather Bureau, or some other government agency? Doesn’t it strike you as a bit odd that a person with such a wonderful, inexplicable, fantastic talent earns his living giving $50 private readings to customers whose questions and problems are generally purely selfish? Doesn’t it suggest something when one realizes that the prophet’s published predictions mainly serve the purpose of drumming up free publicity for himself, so as to bring in still more $50 bills?
It’s difficult to believe that any educated, intelligent person could take fortunetellers, seers, readers, and psychics seriously. Yet readers say business is booming. Many people seem to have a desperate need to be reassured about their futures, and to have advice on personal problems of one kind or another. Where the personal problems are financial, legal, or medical, or where the fortuneteller callously dispenses warnings and predictions of disaster, just to revel in his power over the poor sucker who’s in his clutches, the consequences are often horrible to contemplate. Many people have lost their life savings or avoided medical treatment that could have prevented or postponed serious illness and even death, by following the careless, thoughtless, irresponsible, stupid, cruel, and cynical advice dispensed by some fortune teller, reader, seer, or psychic.
FOR FURTHER READING
Jeane Dixon: Prophet or Fraud?, by M. Bringle, Tower, New York, 1970.
ESP, Seers, and Psychics, Milbourne Christopher, Crowell, New York, 1970, pp. 78-100.
Myths of the Space Age, D. Cohen, Dodd, Mead, New York, 1967, pp. 96-132.
Spirits, Stars, and Spells, L. Sprague and C. C. deCamp, Owlswick, Pennsylvania, 1966, Chapter 4.
ASTOP – The Austin Society to Oppose Pseudoscience – has prepared fact sheets on various pseudoscience topics for the benefit of teachers and others interested in promoting critical thinking. Dr. Rory Coker, Professor of Physics at the University of Texas at Austin, is the author of this fact sheet. The International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA), a professional research and educational organization concerned about the harmful effects of cult involvement, prints and helps distribute these fact sheets. Because ASTOP fact sheets seek to stimulate critical thinking, rather than advance a particular point of view, opinions expressed are those of the authors. A list of available fact sheets can be obtained by contacting ICSA (email@example.com).